Where Should Danes Get Their Protein?

Even though Den­mark was neu­tral dur­ing World War I, the dis­rup­tion of inter­na­tion­al trade as a result of the war meant that the Dan­ish pop­u­la­tion faced the prospect of mass star­va­tion. That’s because the Danes had been import­ing about half of their grain sup­ply, much of which was being used to feed farm ani­mals. To keep the Dan­ish pop­u­la­tion from starv­ing, the Dan­ish gov­ern­ment assigned a physi­cian and nutri­tion­ist named Mikkel Hind­hede, who was the man­ag­er of the Dan­ish Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry for Nutri­tion Research, in Copen­hagen, to design a sys­tem of rationing.

Hind­hede decid­ed that the Danes should stop feed­ing grain to farm ani­mals, or using it to make alco­hol, but should eat what grain they had them­selves. Hind­hede told peo­ple not to wor­ry about get­ting enough pro­tein, or enough fat. As Hind­hede report­ed to the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion, “No atten­tion was paid to the pro­tein min­i­mum. It was held that this min­i­mum was so low for man that it could not be reached, pro­vid­ed suf­fi­cient calo­ries were fur­nished. While fat was regard­ed as a very valu­able addi­tion to the dietary, it was not con­sid­ered as being nec­es­sary.”

Under Hindhede’s food rationing sys­tem, the pop­u­la­tion ate pota­toes and bar­ley, veg­eta­bles, a lit­tle bit of milk and very lit­tle but­ter. Con­sump­tion of meat was prac­ti­cal­ly elim­i­nat­ed, as was con­sump­tion of alco­hol. This diet was “not to Mr. Sørenson’s lik­ing,” as the Danes say, but it was good for Mr. Sørenson’s health.

Under this rationing sys­tem, the death rate from Octo­ber 1917 to Octo­ber 1918 in Den­mark plum­met­ed to its low­est ever. (After that, of course, the Great Pan­dem­ic of influen­za caused huge spikes in mor­tal­i­ty all over the world, includ­ing in Den­mark.) Hind­hede remarked that it’s hard to fig­ure out how much of the decrease in death rate was due to the elim­i­na­tion of meat from the diet, and how much to the elim­i­na­tion of alco­hol.

Hind­hede argues that if a sim­i­lar sys­tem of rationing had been put in place in Cen­tral Europe, no one would have starved. Iron­i­cal­ly, if such a sys­tem had been in place world­wide, it would have pre­vent­ed the Great Pan­dem­ic. We know now that influen­za pan­demics are a result of rais­ing pigs and poul­try for food. The moral of the sto­ry is this: you can improve your own health dra­mat­i­cal­ly if you stop eat­ing ani­mal-based foods; but even if you eat right, you can still get sick and die of dis­eases that you catch from oth­er peo­ple who grew poul­try and pigs.

Pho­to by @boetter

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